July 26, 2012Golf cart drivers in Guilford County need to park their golf carts in the garage.
Or, at least, they need to keep those golf carts off the streets because at the Guilford County Board of Commissioners' Thursday, July 19 meeting, the board voted down a request by Sheriff BJ Barnes to let licensed drivers drive golf carts on roads in unincorporated Guilford County as long as the speed limit for the road is under 35 mph.
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Skip Alston was out of town for the July 19 meeting, which meant that Vice Chairman Kirk Perkins got to lead the discussions.
Alston did participate some by phone.
Commissioner Billy Yow, who was at the beach on vacation, didn't attend the meeting; nor did he call in to participate.
Guilford County Sheriff's Department Major Tom Sheppard gave a brief presentation on why county law enforcement officials wanted to make it legal for citizens to drive golf carts on selected roads. Sheppard said it is now illegal to drive golf carts on the roads and, he added, the change would help officers who have trouble consistently enforcing the existing law.
According to Sheppard, as it is now, if an officer stops a golf cart driver on the road, the officer can cite the driver for multiple infractions including violations for no vehicle registration, a lack of inspection, no auto insurance and a failure to display a license plate.
He said that, in some area subdivisions, it's not uncommon for people to drive their golf cart to the pool or to a friend's house, and, he added, when the Wyndham Championship golf tournament is in Sedgefield, there are many people violating the law because residents, tournament officials, media workers and others are driving golf carts on the streets in that community.
Until new state legislation passed in 2009, it was illegal for anyone to drive a golf cart on public streets in North Carolina; however the state changed the law to allow counties to decide for themselves. So far, only Brunswick County has taken the state up on the offer.
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne told the commissioners that the new law wouldn't affect ATVs and similar vehicles. Payne said it's currently illegal for those vehicles to travel on the roads, though, he added, it is legal for golf carts and other vehicles to cross the road.
Usually, when something unique like this comes up for a vote, it has been discussed behind the scenes for a while. However, this issue seemed to come out of the blue. Commissioner John Parks asked a question that was on the minds of many commissioners, who heard about the item for the first time when they saw it on the meeting agenda.
"Where did this come from?" Parks asked.
Barnes said the proposal originated due to requests from some county residents for the right to legally drive their golf carts within their subdivisions. Barnes said the change would only apply in very select circumstances, and, the sheriff added, while there were safety concerns, overall this change would be beneficial.
"This is not for major highway travel or anything else," he said.
Barnes also said he wanted his officers to be able to focus their attention on more important matters.
"We're there to protect the public," the sheriff said – adding that he didn't see golf carts on the road as a major threat to public safety.
Barnes usually gets what he wants from the board; however, this time even Commissioner Paul Gibson – whose father was Guilford County sheriff years ago, and who almost always supports Barnes – was obviously struggling over this request.
Like Parks, Gibson said he had never heard anyone discuss the subject before, either publicly or privately. Gibson asked if the request was related specifically to the annual Wyndham Championship golf tournament, which is played in mid-August at Sedgefield Country Club.
"It's not only about the Wyndham," Barnes said.
Gibson said he hadn't heard any compelling reason to approve the change.
"I'm really on the fence with this," Gibson said.
Gibson called the move "an accident waiting to happen," and he said automobile drivers might not be looking out for slow moving golf carts and they could rear end the open and unprotected vehicles and cause a serious accident.
"I've done that in Amish Country," Gibson said. "I've come up on a horse and buggy and almost hit it."
He added, "A golf cart is just what it says – golf."
Barnes said those concerns were the reason that, under the proposed change in the ordinance, the carts would be limited to roads where the speed limit is 35 mph or less.
Sheppard said that driving golf carts on the road is already a widespread practice. He said he lives in Sedgefield and frequently sees people driving golf carts on the streets of that community.
"We're trying to do what's already being done all the time," he said of the ordinance change.
Sheppard said that, under the existing law, officers sometimes stop golf carts and order them to drive the cart straight home or, in the case of young drivers, the officer may call the driver's parents and have them come get the child and the cart.
Gibson asked how many tickets the Sheriff's Department had written in the last year for driving golf carts on the streets.
"Zero tickets," Sheppard said.
Commissioner Kay Cashion said she thought that legalizing golf carts on the roads would be a good thing. She said it would be very convenient for people who live in communities like Forest Oaks.
Commissioner Bruce Davis, who these days is frequently at odds with Barnes, said he was opposed to the change. Davis said golf carts wouldn't be subject to regular safety inspections or to the same licensing requirements of other vehicles on the street. He said the proposed change had the "potential for disaster" and he added that people driving cars in subdivisions often drive very fast.
"In subdivisions, people tend to go over the speed limit," Davis said.
He also said it was faulty logic to argue that everyone was already doing it and therefore it should be made legal.
"Why not legalize marijuana?" Davis asked. "People are doing it."
Gibson jumped in.
"Is that a motion, Mr. Davis?" Gibson asked, generating a good deal of laughter.
Commissioner Linda Shaw said she had "mixed emotions" on the issue. Shaw said that, in the past, she had gotten behind horses on the road, and, she said, it sometimes scares her the way those horses can suddenly "rise up." However, Shaw never said how her comments related to the discussion on golf carts that everyone else in the room was having.
Toward the end of the discussion, Davis was fishing to find an ulterior motive from Barnes.
Davis asked Barnes, "Do you own a golf cart, Sheriff?"
The clearly annoyed Barnes indicated that he did not.
The tension between the two was obvious. At another point in the discussion, after Davis spoke, Barnes asked Davis, "Can I comment on that, Commissioner?"
Davis shot back, "No, sir."
When Barnes did get a chance to speak again, the sheriff pointed out that each year in the Christmas parade the commissioners ride on a float pulled by a golf cart. Technically, Barnes said, the commissioners were violating the law when they did that.
Davis said he hoped Barnes wasn't going to start ticketing the county commissioners for riding in the Christmas parade.
Commissioner Mike Winstead tried to introduce some calm. He said the board needed to back the sheriff.
"I think we are making things a lot harder than they should be," Winstead said. "This is a law enforcement issue."
Winstead said that, for that reason, the matter should be left up to the sheriff, and, he added, approving the change would benefit citizens who wanted to drive their carts short distances on the road.
"I think it's convenient for some people," Winstead said.
When the vote was taken, however, Winstead was in the minority. The motion to legalize golf carts on the streets failed 4 to 6. Winstead, Shaw, Parks and Alston were the commissioners who voted to support the move.
Also at the July 19 meeting, the commissioners voted to approve an incentives request from Culp Inc. to expand its mattress cover manufacturing operations in Stokesdale. The company expects to create 129 full-time jobs and invest $925,000 in the expansion. Culp was requesting $82,650 in county funds over a four-year period.
The proposed new jobs from Culp will average $25,800 a year, while the average salary of workers in Guilford County is about $40,000.
Interim Guilford County Planning and Development Director Betty Garrett, who's been interim director for almost four years now, said that, since the pay was less than the county average, the company didn't qualify for the full amount of incentives of $1,000 per job. She said they did qualify for the $82,650, which represents a percentage of the $129,000 the company would qualify for under the county's guidelines.
The commissioners almost always vote to approve incentives requests no matter what, and this time was no exception.
At the July 19 public hearing required before incentives can be granted, incentives advocates gave much more information than the board needed to know; at one point, company representatives even displayed a section of a mattress to explain exactly what type of product would be made.
Kathi Dubel, vice president of the Greensboro Economic Development Alliance, spoke at the public hearing as an advocate for the Culp incentives.
"Culp is a publicly traded company, a rapidly growing company," she told the board. She added that the facilities in Stokesdale were "very underutilized and had been for the last four or five years."
Dubel said Culp offered many employee benefits, matched 401(k) plans, and was working with Guilford Technical Community College to train workers.
She said the fabric company paid $139,000 in taxes in 2011, and, she said, the county is experiencing very high unemployment rates.
"These jobs are sorely needed in our community," she said.
Dubel added, "This is a competitive process." And she said Guilford County was in competition with Henry County, Virginia, for the new jobs.
Pat Rosser, the director of operations for the home fashions division of Culp, also spoke. He said the company makes mattress covers for a wide variety of mattress makers.
"You all sleep on, most likely, our product every night," Rosser told the commissioners.
He said Culp was a good corporate citizen and that the company supports area hospice services, local United Way chapters and other charities.
Rosser pointed out that the state had an African-American population of 21.5 percent, while Culp has a work force that was 25 percent African American.
Culp officials also brought visual and tactile aids, going into some detail about how mattresses are made. They displayed a section of a mattress and passed some fabric around to the commissioners so they could feel it. Thankfully, company officials did not wheel out a bed and demonstrate how people lie on it at night.
When the board discussed the incentives request, several commissioners praised the company and its plan to expand; however Commissioner Carolyn Coleman expressed concerns that there was no way to guarantee the jobs would go to Guilford County residents.
Davis managed to somehow use a discussion about mattress cover incentives to slam the sheriff. Davis commented on the diverse nature of the company's workforce and then he said, "Your diversity makeup is fantastic – our sheriff could really learn from this. The Sheriff's Department is not hitting their numbers when it comes to diversity hiring."
Davis also said he hoped the board would approve the move unanimously.
When a vote was taken, it wasn't unanimous, but it was enough votes to give the $82,650 of taxpayer money to the company with net sales of $254 million last year.
The request was granted on a 7-to-3 vote with Commissioners Gibson, Winstead and Coleman voting no.
At the meeting, the Board of Commissioners gave final approval of about $7.7 million in funding for the Eastern Area Sewer Plan, a joint project with the City of Greensboro that will extend sewer lines to much of eastern Guilford County in an effort to promote economic development in that area.
The commissioners also voted to finally give the City of Greensboro almost $9.4 million that the county has withheld from the city for about two years. In June 2010, the city sent a letter to the county notifying county officials that the city was terminating a decades-old city and county water and sewer agreement, and it has taken over two years for the county to give the city its half of the joint water and sewer fund. For over a year, Guilford County Manager Brenda Jones Fox wouldn't even tell city officials how much money was in the fund.
At the July 19 meeting, the board also voted to approve sending 40 Guilford County Sheriff's Department officers to aid the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department with security for the Democratic National Convention, which will be held in Charlotte from Monday, Sept. 3 to Thursday, Sept. 6.
The board also scheduled a work session for Thursday, August 9 to discuss several aspects of the county's jail situation. The next regular meeting of the board will be on Thursday, August 23.